For us science wonks thermodynamics is the study of heat and work and those properties of substance related to heat and work. But for creationists, it’s the basis for a prized whopper endlessly passed off as fact in the fundamentalist jihad against natural history. A recent editorial offers up the classic zombie lie:
York Daily Record — Truth that has been scientifically demonstrated beyond doubt is called a “scientific law” such as the second law of thermodynamics, which states that “over time order tends to disorder.” By the way, this “scientific law” directly disputes the “theory” of progressive evolution.
So much fail in only two sentences. The Second Law of Thermodynamics (SLoT) could be loosely described as a postulate based on the statistics of vast sets of vibrating and moving molecules interacting with one another. Or, one way to state it mathematically is that dS = dQ/T, where dS is the change in entropy, dQ the incremental heat transfer, and T the total temperature of a system. Since most people don’t have a clue what that means, it works great for creationists looking to fool people. I’ve seen a common bait and switch con and a rarer, more sophisticated one. Let’s do the complicated one first, because it’s more fun.
One way to get your lay arms around the SLoT comes from everyday life: heat does not, on average, flow from cold objects to hot objects. This is common sense. A glass of soda does not usually get warmer while the ice cubes in it get colder, right?
But air contained in a box can get colder while the air outside the box gets warmer, with the right mechanical arrangement and given an input of work. The contraption shown in schematic above is just such a device, one known intimately to any sophomore undergraduate engineering or physics major as a heat pump; it’s also highly valued down here in Texas in July! Think of it as the energy reverse of a familiar steam engine: in the engine heat input produces work output, in the pump work input produces heat output.
I’ve seen creationists sketch these basics out and then proclaim that we clever humans can break the SLoT afterall, with the sheer power of our awesome monkey brain, and so ‘intelligent design’ is vindicated. The reality is heat pumps use the thermal properties of a coolant undergoing compression and expansion in such a way that heat is still always flowing from a hot substance to a colder one. Air conditioners designed by man, and organisms crafted by natural selection, do not ”break” the second “law” anymore than helicopters or butterflies break the law of gravity.
The less sophisticated con job is oddly a little more difficult to explain. The SLoT can be stated, clumsily, as ‘the entropy in a closed and bounded system will always increase’. But recall from above that entropy is a slippery mathematical quantity, dS=dQ/T, measured as Joules per degree Kelvin in the metric system, and that’s a little too technical for popular discussion. So scientists and science writers have tried using other, more familiar words and concepts when explaining it to the public. And one of the words they’ve tried using over the years is disorder.
Disorder is a lousy term for an elegant quantity. Calling entropy disorder when trying to explain the SLoT to non-science people is about as accurate as using the hand-sign for ‘lovely’ when trying to explain a symphony to a deaf six year-old. It’s terribly prone to confusion with the colloquial idea of disorder, i.e., unorganized, a random mess, or simple as opposed to complex. Unless of course you are a creationist, in which case creating confusion is arguably the whole point of your profession.
Creationist bank on that dual meaning, that entropy is disorder and disorder is the opposite of organization. A bacterium is obviously more complicated than salt water, complex cells more organized than simple bacteria, vertebrates more complex than an amoeba, etc. It’s then easy to erroneously mix in a little abiogenesis with your pseudo evo-bio, and viola, the creationist can now say chemicals to microbes to man evolution violates the SLoT! In the hands of dedicated professional liar that spiel can sound quite intimidating. It even has the added benefit of playing on Hoyle’s tornado in a junkyard fallacy.
There are so many things wrong with that it’s hard to know where to start, each one would take time and some technical detail to get across. Suffice it to say if thermo worked like that — where every physical interaction of matter and energy must go from more to less “organized” at every scale at all times — forget about evo, everything from hurricanes to planetary accretion to developing blastocyst would be impossible.
I doubt the writer quoted above had an inkling of the physics behind heat pumps or entropy. Odds are, like most people, he might appreciate the science if it were explained. But unlike most people, who tend to know when they don’t know, he is probably dead certain that thermodynamics disprove evolution, and that no one who studies physics or biology thought of that, or was willing to admit it, until his creationist mentors were kind enough to enlighten the entire scientific world.